I enjoy all the various cuisines in Southeast Asia, but the food in Thailand is by far my favorite, probably my favorite in the whole world. So I have often wondered, how did the food there get to be so much more diverse and complex than the fare in nearby countries that have pretty much the same terrains and weather conditions? This is what I found out.
The very first culinary influence came from the mountainous region of the Yunnan province in southwestern part of China. The ‘Tai’ people immigrated from there between the 6th and 13th centuries into what is now known as Thailand, Laos, the Shan States of northern Myanmar (Burma) and northwestern Vietnam. Already possessing the Chinese cooking techniques they brought with them, these immigrants took full advantage of the rich biodiversity of the Thai peninsula, resulting in dishes that have some similarities to Szechwan cuisine but with a wider range of ingredients.
Later on, foreign trade further influenced the direction of Thai cuisine. The powerful Ayuthaya period, which occurred during the 14th through 18th centuries, saw a dramatic rise in international trade for the country. A thriving seaport, the then capital city of Ayuthaya was one of the wealthiest and greatest cities in Asia. In the early 17th century the city started receiving visitors from different parts of the world.
Supposedly Buddhist monks from India brought curry to Thailand, and it was Portuguese missionaries who introduced chilies, having enjoyed them so much while serving in South America. The Portuguese likewise supposedly brought their love of sweets to the country. And it is said that it was Westerners who, used to having milk in their foods, suggested the addition of coconut milk into Thai curries. Some Dutch, French and Japanese cooking techniques were also supposedly adapted during the Ayuthaya period.
And, philosophically speaking, I think one of the reasons Thai food has reached such great heights in the culinary world is because of the general openness of Thai culture to different ways of doing things. This occurred not only in their cuisine but also in other aspects of their society. Over a period of several centuries the Thais basically took great ideas and concepts from all over the world, incorporated them into what they already had, and made something unique and wonderful while still remaining true to their core cultural values. Thai food just happens to be a perfect example of one of the rewards of this open-mindedness, and my palate thanks them immensely for it.